INDIA WORKING GROUP
(Part of the International Religious Freedom Roundtable/Washington DC)
October 26, 2020
The Honorable Mike Pompeo
Secretary of State
Dear Mr. Secretary,
India Working Group is a part of the IRF Roundtable in Washington DC. We are a multifaith group with Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, and Ahmadi, faiths working towards the idea of
freedom of religion and expression in India.
We would like to bring the case of Fr. Stan Swamy, an 83-year old Jesuit Priest in India, to your immediate attention. He was arrested on October 8 by India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA)
on false charges and is being held without bail under a law that grants unlimited powers to the police in the name of national security.
Fr. Stan was clearly arrested for political reasons: He has been a major voice of reason on behalf of the indigenous tribal people across the tribal belt of India and their land rights. He has
worked all his life to educate and help pass several laws to protect the land rights of the tribal population.
Historically, tribal people in remote parts of India are entitled to their land and self-rule. This right was given to them during the British rule. When India became independent, their lands came
to be protected and expressly enshrined in the Constitution of India. These constitutional provisions are somewhat similar to the rights and administrative responsibilities under treaties governing
Indian reservations in the United States.
Moreover, Article 13 (3) (a) of the Indian Constitution validates the traditional and customary rights and practices of the tribal people as law, with the same effect as laws or ordinances passed
by elected and appointed bodies of government. It is an important constitutional provision that empowers the tribal people to assert their traditional self-rule in the so-called Scheduled Areas
inhabited by them.
Article 244 (1) under the Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution provides the tribal villagers the authority to independently administer their resources.
Many villages where tribal people live vociferously assert these constitutional rights against encroachments by private companies (or even local governments). They do so by erecting a stone
inscription locally known as Pathalgadi -- literally meaning carved/written in stone -- at the entrance to their village declaring that the lands belong to the specified tribe.
This movement has come to be referred to as Pathalgadi movement.
However, of late, Prime Minister Modi’s BJP government has been wanting to assert the rights of elected bodies to pass laws that would supersede the constitutional provisions that protect the
rights of the tribal people.
The BJP governments, at both the state and national levels, want to transfer these constitutionally protected lands to private mining companies through legislations favoring the rights of the
state and corporations.
In May 2016, the Modi government passed two legislations which enabled transfer of tribal land to the government as well as to commercial interests. This act of the government set in motion a
series of events which helped the Pathalgadi movement regain its prominence. The Tribal people called their struggle Jal-Jungle-Jameen (water-forest-land). As the government showed no signs
of respecting their rights, the tribal villages even boycotted the 2019 Indian General Election. But the newly re-elected Modi government began cracking down on the movement.
The crackdown was so brutal that by mid-2019, many tribal people and their leaders either went underground or publicly disassociated themselves from the Pathalgadi movement out of fear of arrest
or harassment by the government. Some tribal areas witnessed more than 10% of the population getting arrested and charged under sedition laws.
In addition, the Modi government branded the movement as being anti-development and hence anti-national. Some of the tribal people in the forefront of this movement were branded as ‘Maoists’
working to overthrow elected governments. People like Fr. Stan became a prominent voice on behalf of the rights of the indigenous people against greedy corporations and were charged falsely with
instigating violence to overthrow an elected government.
The National Investigating Agency (NIA) also says that Fr. Stan is responsible for the violence that took place in a place called Bhima Koregaon in the State of Maharashtra in 2017, during an
annual event (celebrating the victory of British and Dalit forces over Brahmin Peshwas), because Fr. Stan knew some organizers of that peace rally.
So, the Modi government is branding Fr. Stan and 15 other writers and activists for tribal rights as Maoist insurgents working against the interest of the state. He and others are accused of
engineering the violence during the peace rally!
Unfortunately, Fr. Stan is not alone. Any person in India, whether they are journalists, poets, writers, peace activists, religious leaders, student leaders, politicians or even government
officials in some cases, are at risk of being branded anti-national and charged under sedition or terrorism laws for speaking out or inconveniencing the Modi government and his Hindu nationalist
Modi government brand the peace activists as a front variously inspired by Maoists, Christian evangelicals, or opium cultivators and resort to its favorite strategy – arresting and jailing all
outspoken leaders, many of whom come from educated middle class tribal families. By arresting Fr. Stan, they are also branding the church in India as anti-national for speaking on behalf of
vulnerable people – a win-win for the Hindu nationalist party.
The Government of India headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist BJP party have clearly embarked on a course that will transform India irrevocably into an intolerant
fundamentalist state in the name of Hinduism.
Mr. Secretary, we believe it is very important that the United States understand the root cause of the problem and speak out strongly against Hindu nationalism, however inconvenient that may seem.
The United States must stop accepting the Modi government’s public relations spin on the grave developments in India. Failing to do so will irrevocably jeopardize peace in that region as well as
America’s long-term interest in that part of the world -- like the one we are witnessing in South China Sea region now.
Unfortunately, expression of private concerns or even warnings expressed privately behind closed doors do not work with Mr. Modi and his party. They listen only to public rebuke by their friends
and allies. They care about their public image in the West. Unless you say something in public, they will ignore whatever you tell them in private.
In closing, we urge you to speak out both in private and in pubic about the continuing violations of human rights and religious freedom in India as already spelled out in detail by USCIRF. We urge
you to demand that India immediately release all the prisoners of conscience, starting with the release of Fr. Swamy and the Bhima Koregaon Sixteen.
(Endorsed by Member organizations of India Working Group)